The tattered and blackened flag is the beginning and the end of the rise of a “sleeping giant” in the most devastating global conflict in history.
The 48-star American flag flew aboard the warship USS St. Louis as bombs exploded and sailors and airmen died at Pearl Harbor 75 years ago Wednesday in the midst of an Imperial Japanese Navy attack on the Pacific fleet.
Less than four years later, the flag would fly above the deck of the massive battleship USS Iowa in Tokyo Bay. That day — Sept. 2, 1945 — the leaders of Japan signed a document of unconditional surrender on the USS Missouri.
Wednesday, the flag soiled with tattered edges torn by war will emerge from a darkened storage area at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force to be displayed — for one day — to a new generation to mark the 75th anniversary of the devastating attack.
“What’s remarkable about this flag is the power of objects and what museums are about,” said Jeff Duford, a museum curator. “That flag represents the beginning and the end of World War II for the United States. It’s the Alpha and the Omega.”
A World War II sailor who served aboard both the St. Louis and the Iowa, Ralph W. Youmans of Middletown, donated the flag in 1975. Youmans died in 2002, newspaper archives show.
Conservators pulled the historic banner that survived the onslaught of devastating explosions out of the glare of museum lights in 2009 to preserve it from deterioration. The museum will give away more than 500 World War II lithographs Wednesday near the flag, officials said.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the light cruiser USS St. Louis was tied to a pier when Japanese warplanes swarmed overhead, blackening the sky with explosions spewing plumes of smoke over the once placid sea. The warship shot down three enemy planes and got underway but was unable to find the fleet that had left such a swath of destruction and drawn the United States to war.
The Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor and the flag at the Air Force museum are a “visceral reminder” of the surprise attack, said Paul D. Lockhart, 53, a history professor at Wright State University and the son of a veteran of the war.
“I think it is increasingly important especially as the World War II generation is going away very, very quickly,” Lockhart said.
The remnants of Pearl Harbor echo in the collection of the museum at Wright-Patterson, which documents the same-day attacks on nearby Hickham, Bellows and Wheeler air fields.
Among the artifacts: An American pilot’s leather flight jacket, a small part of the radar that detected the incoming swarm of invading aircraft, a head band worn by a Japanese pilot who attacked Pearl Harbor.
There’s even a pair of tuxedo trousers that Army Air Force pilot Harry W. Brown wore after a night out on the town and then rushed into a fighter plane to confront the invaders.
“It really speaks to the haste and the surprise of the attack,” Duford said.